SPARK Award finalists Ruth Giles, Lynell Dillard, Leticia Sifuentes, Melanie Jenkins, Mimi Munoz, and Gerjuan O’Neal. Photo courtesy of alliantgroup

Remember voting last month for the SPARK Award, the program that rewards outstanding HISD science teachers? Well, folks, we have a winner.

During a luncheon on Thursday at alliantgroup’s headquarters in the Galleria area, elementary science teacher Leticia Sifuentes was named this year’s SPARK Award winner for her outstanding work at Bonner Elementary School.

Since 2019, alliantgroup has partnered with Houston ISD to reward innovative science teachers who are increasing student engagement by emphasizing the importance of science, but also why it’s fun.

Sifuentes says she has worked alongside incredible teachers throughout her career, and that is why she is so honored to be chosen among them now.

“I am so excited to have won this award, especially with the company I was in. They are all fabulous teachers,” says Sifuentes. “I am extremely honored to have won this award for my students, because they are the reason I am here.”

Sifuentes has only been teaching at Bonner Elementary School for one year but is a veteran in the classroom, with 24 years of experience. She says her own fifth grade teacher inspired her to also become an educator.

“My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Johnson, was very interactive,” says Sifuentes. She was definitely somebody I looked up to and wanted to be exactly like.”

Sifuentes was selected among five other finalists, including: Melanie Jenkins with Katherine Smith Elementary School, Ruth Giles with Cornelius Elementary School, Mimi Muñoz with Seguin Elementary School, Gerjuan O’Neal with Mark Twain Elementary School, and Lynell Dillard with Clemente Martinez Elementary School.

All six teachers were gifted $500 toward their classrooms. The finalists were also given $1,300 for themselves and the winner took home $3,500 for herself.

SPARK Award winners Deirdre Ricketts (2019), Leticia Sifuentes (2022), Whitnee Boston (2021). Photo courtesy of alliantgroup

Despite the competition, Sifuentes says this group of teachers has already become close and is focused on helping each other succeed in the classroom.

“They are all amazing teachers and we have a created our own professional learning community group,” she says. “We’ve started an email chat where we share ideas and collaborate with one another. That is one of the best things about meeting other teachers through this: We are all willing to help each other, which is how you become a better educator.”

The nominees were selected by HISD’s science curriculum department before being interviewed by a panel of judges, who ultimately chose the grand prize winner.

The panel included the newly appointed general manager of Univision, Glen Coleman; senior principal Frances Crossingham with Slalom Consulting; FOX 26 meteorologist Lena Maria Arango; and Ivan Rodriguez, who is the founder and CEO of Glocal Advantage.

They got the chance to meet the finalists, interview them, and then see a video of each teacher in action inside their classroom. Casey Curry, senior director of strategic communications and philanthropy at alliantgroup, says after getting to know Sifuentes better, she understands why the judges selected her as this year’s winner.

“Leticia was our honorable mention teacher in 2019 and I’m so thrilled she is our winner this year,” Curry says. “She truly embraces her students and because of her own experiences she is able to relate to them in a unique way.”

“Many times, my students think being bilingual is negative and keeps them from things, but I tell them it is their superpower,” says Sifuentes. “Now they have two languages they can use to be successful. I tell them they will use it all the time because it is quite valuable.”

This is the fourth year that alliantgroup has recognized and rewarded HISD elementary science teachers. You can learn more about this year’s SPARK Award nominees here.

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Houston thought leaders look for extraterrestrial intelligence at Future Focus event

Out of This World

The latest Future Focus discussion held by alliantgroup was out of this world! The company teamed up with InnovationMap to host Dr. Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute at alliantgroup headquarters in the Galleria area. The conversation focused on how new technology is helping in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Dr. Robert Ambrose, alliantgroup strategic advisory board member, was the moderator for the night. He recently retired from NASA as the chief of software, robotics, and the simulation division, and clarified why it is crucial we have these conversations with Dr. Shostak about space and ask the question: Do aliens exist?

“We should be looking up. We should be thinking about what is coming and how we are going to be a part of it. It is an exciting time in space,” said Dr. Ambrose.

Dr. Shostak has been the senior astronomer and director at the SETI Institute in San Francisco for the past 20 years. He explained to the audience there is a difference between the search for aliens and the search for life in the universe.

“SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, but it's not the same as the search for life, which it's often confused with,” explained Dr. Shostak. “You might find life on Mars, but it's not going to be very clever. But when you look for extraterrestrial intelligence, you are looking for the kind of aliens you might see on television or in the movies. Are they intelligent, can they communicate with us, and can they hold a conversation?”

Dr. Shostak believes we can infer aliens exist because of the number of planets and stars there are in the universe. But he also believes the search is heating up thanks to new technology and satellites currently being developed.

“Do I think we probably will find them in our lifetime? I honestly do," he said. "You could say that's just wishful thinking and perhaps it is, but it's more than that. It is the fact that the equipment is getting better very quickly."

He bets that by 2035 we will have found and communicated with extraterrestrial intelligence. Both Dr. Shostak and Dr. Ambrose agree, once we have found this life, our world will change for the better.

“We are going to learn all sorts of things about physics and the rules of the universe that we’ve never uncovered,” explained Dr. Ambrose. “Imagine everything we could have taught humans about the universe a couple hundred years ago. What if we can find someone who could teach us those lessons today? What an acceleration we would have.”

This was just the second Future Focus discussion alliantgroup has hosted, and CEO Dhaval Jadav said he hopes to continue to lead these innovative conversations around technology.

“We started this future focus series of roundtables to engage thought leaders and industry experts on topics related to the development of new technologies," Jadav said. "We are living in a most exciting and heady time, with the adoption of new technologies and platforms accelerating at an unprecedented rate.

"In order for us to stay abreast of all these exciting innovations — from web 3 to sportstech, blockchain, AI/quantum computing, the metaverse and our ever-expanding universe, including the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – we must continue to hold thought-provoking dialogues to further explore and chart our path to the future."

You can click here to learn more about alliantgroup’s previous event and what’s to come.

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Inaugural panel discussion dives deep into emerging tech partnerships

Sports Talk

On March 24, more than 100 guests gathered at alliantgroup's head-turning conference center in the Galleria area for an exciting discussion on the sportstech industry, co-sponsored by InnovationMap. The panelists included Houston-based thought leaders, founders, and investors who shared their insights while discussing how the city of Houston can emerge as a leader in sports technology.

With the backdrop of Houston’s skyline, the event began with an hour of networking, drinks, and light bites. Then alliantgroup’s CEO, Dhaval Jadav, kicked off the discussion by sharing his enthusiasm for the inaugural Future Focus series and introduced David Gow as the moderator for the night’s topic.

Gow is the CEO of Gow Media and the CEO of a SPAC (Special Purpose Acquisition Corp) that has raised $115 million to invest in sportstech. He explained how “technology is transforming the sports industry, creating new billion-dollar industries seemingly overnight.”

He defined sportstech within four categories: health and performance, fan engagement, e-sports, and fantasy and gambling. Across these categories, technology is enabling interconnectedness through social interaction, new communities, improved health, subscriber-based business models, software as a service, and new revenue streams.

And this doesn’t even do justice to all the changes happening with NIL, NFTs and Web3.

The panel included an all-star cast, with two from academia, an executive from the Houston Astros, and two sportstech entrepreneurs:

  • Beena George, chief innovation officer and professor of management at University of St. Thomas
  • Tom Stallings, professor of sports management at Rice University
  • Jimmy Comerota, director of strategic partnerships for the Houston Astros
  • Dez, co-creator of Apollo Houston
  • Jorge Ortiz, CEO of VarsityHype

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Gow began by asking the panelists “which innovation intrigues you the most?” and responses ranged from wearables to enhance wellness to new training equipment to the rise of e-sports and the metaverse, the latter of which Ortiz displayed particular enthusiasm about. He has already made a bet on the future — last year he bought a tavern in the metaverse, naming it “Isla,” after his newborn.

Gow cited Houston-based company nVenue as being well positioned for the future of sports betting.

“The company will profit from microbetting, which is rapid bets on individual moments within a game, e.g. a bet on whether a batter will get on base, etc," said Gow. "It takes raw, historical data, such as a batting average, and turns it into betting odds real-time, pitch by pitch.”

George noted that University of St. Thomas now has an e-sports team. “The young demo in e-sports suggests a high-growth future,” she shared.

The panel agreed that we are already seeing the impacts on the merging of sports and technology and how it’s shaping our engagement here in Houston.

"Everyone that knows me knows that I am a sports fanatic, and I was absolutely blown away by the panel and their discussion on what’s on the horizon for the fan experience," said Jadav. "I was riveted by the discussion and they covered so many exciting topics. I am also super excited about how Web3 and the metaverse will change how we interact with athletes and creatives and create a more immersive experience for all. I can’t wait for the next event.”

Future Focus: Sportstech was the first of many planned discussions that alliantgroup and InnovationMap are hosting. The series was created as a way for industry leaders and burgeoning startups to exchange ideas and talk about what the future of technology looks like for all of us.

The next event will focus on spacetech and is scheduled for May 5. It will be moderated by alliantgroup chairman of robotics and artificial intelligence Dr. Robert Ambrose, who recently retired from NASA, where he served as the chief of software, robotics, and simulation division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The panel will include Dr. Seth Shotak, senior astronomer and director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in California.

These Future Focus panels are free to attend, though registration is encouraged.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston startups raise funding, secure partnerships across space, health, and sports tech

short stories

It's been a new month and a few Houston startup wrapped up November with news you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, three Houston startups across health care, space, and sports tech have some news they announced recently.

Houston digital health company launches new collaboration

Koda Health has a new partner. Image via kodahealthcare.com

Houston-based Koda Health announced a new partnership with data analytics company, CareJourney.

"This collaboration will aim to develop benchmarking data for advance care planning and end-of-life metrics," the company wrote on LinkedIn. "Koda will provide clinical and practice-based expertise to guide the construction of toolkits, dashboards, and benchmarks that improve ACP programs and end-of-life outcomes."

Koda Health announced the partnership in November..

“Beyond the checkbox of a billing code or completed advance directive, it’s important to build and measure a process that promotes thoughtful planning among patients, their care team, and their loved ones,” says Desh Mohan, MD, Koda's chief medical officer, in the post.

CareJourney was founded in 2014 in Arlington, Virginia.

"I'm hopeful next-generation quality measures will honor the patient’s voice in defining what it means to deliver high quality care, and our commitment is to measure progress on that important endeavor," noted Aneesh Chopra, CareJourney's co-founder and president.

Sports tech startup raises $500,000 pre-seed investment

BeONE Sports has created a technology to enhance athletic training. Photo via beonesports.com

Houston-founded BeONE Sports, an athlete training technology company, announced last month that it closed an oversubscribed round of pre-seed funding. The company announced the raise on its social media pages that the round included $500,000 invested.

Earlier in November, BeONE Sports completed its participation in CodeLaunch DFW 2022. The company was one of six finalists in the program, which concluded with a pitch event on November 16.

Space tech company snags government contracts

Graphic via cognitive space.com

The U.S. Air Force has extended Houston-based Cognitive Space’s contract under a new TACFI, Tactical Funding Increase, award. According to the release, the contract "builds on Cognitive Space’s work to develop a tailored version of CNTIENT for AFRL to achieve ultimate responsiveness and optimized dynamic satellite scheduling via a cloud-based API.

The $1.2 million award follows a $1.5 million U.S. Air Force Small Business Innovation Research award that the company won in 2020 to integrate CNTIENT with commercial ground station providers in support of AFRL’s Hybrid Architecture Demonstration program.

“The TACFI award allows Cognitive Space to continue supporting AFRL’s vitally important HAD program to help deliver commercial space data to the warfighter,” says Guy de Carufel, the company’s founder and CEO, in the releasee. “CNTIENT’s tailored analytics platform will enable HAD and the GLUE platform to integrate modern statistical approaches to optimize mission planning, data collection, and latency estimation.”

Houston airport powers up new gaming lounge for bored and weary travelers

game on and wheels down

Local gamers now have a new option to while away those flight delays and passenger pickup waits at Hobby Airport.

Houston's William P. Hobby Airport is now one the first airports in the country to offer what's dubbed as the "ultimate gaming experience for travelers." The airport has launched a premium video game lounge inside the international terminal called Gameway.

That means weary, bored, or early travelers can chill in the lounge and plug into15 top-of-the-line, luxury gaming stations: six Xbox stations, five Playstation stations, four PC stations, all with the newest games on each platform. Aficionados will surely appreciate the Razer's Iskur Gaming Chairs and Kraken Headsets, along with dedicated high speed internet at each PC station.

The Gameway lounge pays homage to gaming characters, with wall accents that hark to motherboard circuits Crucial for any real gamer: plenty of sweet and savory snacks are available for purchase to fuel up on those fantasy, battle, or sporting endeavors. As for the gaming console stations, players can expect high definition screens, comfortable seating, and plenty of space for belongings.

Make video games a part of your pre-flight ritual. Photo courtesy of Gameway

This gaming addition comes just in time for the holiday rush, when travelers can expect long lines, delays, and are already planning for extended time for trips. As CultureMap previously reported, Hobby will see a big boost in travelers this season — the largest since 2019. Now, those on a long journey can plug in, decompress, and venture on virtual journeys of their own.

Texan travelers may be familiar with Gameway; the company opened its first two locations at Dallas Fort-Worth Airport. The buzzy lounge an industry wave of acclaim: Gameway was awarded Best Traveler Amenity in 2019 at the ACI-NA Awards and in 2020, voted “Most Innovative Customer Experience” at the Airport Experience Traveler Awards, per press materials.

Two new locations followed in 2021: LAX Terminal 6 and Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The first of Gameway's Ultra lounge brand opened in September at Delta's Terminal 3 in LAX.

Gaming culture is a way of life in the Bayou City , which hosts Comicpalooza, the largest pop culture festival in Texas, and is home to several e-sports teams, including the pro esports squad, the Houston Outlaws.

A delayed flight never seemed so ideal for gamers flying out of Hobby. Photo courtesy of Gameway

“Gameway is the real reason to get to the airport early,” said Co-Founder Jordan Walbridge in a statement. “Our mission is to upgrade the typical wait-at-the-gate experience with a new stimulating, entertaining option for travelers of all ages.”

Here's guessing Hobby might just see an increase in missed or late flight arrivals — as travelers simply must beat those big bosses, solve puzzles, or win sports matches in the lounge.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.